Monday 16 February 2009

Faust in Berlin: Superb singing in confusing production

Faust. Berlin State Opera, February 15th, 2009 (premiere). Production: Karsten Wiegand. Cast: Charles Castronovo (Faust), René Pape (Méphistophéles), Marina Poplavskaya (Marguerite), Silvia de la Muela (Siebel), Roman Trekel (Valentin). Conductor: Alain Altinoglu. Further information here.

Initially we see Méphistopheles and Faust as Franciscan monks in front of a black wall, Méphistophéles covering his face from the audience. Upon being summoned by Faust, he initiates the action by activating a slot machine, after which a three-storey set inhabited with punk-look-alikes in a casino is revealed, Marguerite lying in her bed upstage.
Quite unusually, the music as well as the stage movements occasionally ceases only to begin when activated by Méphistophéles. In this rather boring white-trash environment including a procession of dophin masks (point unkonwn), Marguerite is easily seduced by a few pieces of fake jewelry supplied by Méphistopheles, now dressed like a catholic priest.

After the intermission things get more interesting when the choristers form a crucifix around Méphistophéles, now in seemingly Russian orthodox church regalia, in a rather effective church scene. Faust remains a passive character throughout, far too passive to kill Valentin, which Méphistophéles does for him. As Marguerite, covered in blood, displays the body of her dead child, she is substituted for a parade of hookers in the Walpurgis night and ultimately kills herself. Is she saved? I think not: Upon Marguerite falling lifeless to the floor on the empty stage, the stage walls are removed to display a dinner party, behind which Méphistophéles disappears with Faust. Theater within the theater, presumably.

Karsten Wiegand´s overall point being? I am not sure, though my first guess would be a statement against organized religion. Where this staging fails however, is with the characterization of the protagonists and though Wiegand has some interesting points, there is simply not enough dramatic tension to keep this the boat floating throughout. Not to mention a more stringent dramaturgy in order to understand what is going on without having to rely on programme notes etc.

The singers, however were first rate.

Marina Poplavskaya was announced as indisposed with a cold, but nevertheless sang beautifully with her dusky soprano and strangely intense stage appearance.

René Pape was not initially announced as indisposed (at his own request apparently), though he clearly should have been, strangely unfocused in appearance, dashing aimlessly around the stage, forgetting the text and entrances as well as occasionally intonating flat, something I have never previously heard from him. Furthermore his entrances and exits from stage seemed very uncoordinated, particularly in Act 2, though perhaps he left as he was unwell. Immediately after the intermission came the announcement that he was indisposed and needed treatment for "circulatory problems", but would continue after an additional 10 minutes. Indisposed or not, he remains a smashing Méphistophéles, though, knowing his usual standards, this was not his evening.

Charles Castronovo was a wonderful Faust with beautiful tone, fine phrasings, understandable French, effortless high notes as well as a sympathetic, though not overly engaged stage presence. Silvia de la Muela was a sympathetic Siebel and Roman Trekel a dramatically convincing, though dry Valentin.

Much applause for Alain Altinoglu in the pit, the only intrinsic French element to this performance. He obviously has plenty of ideas with this score, though his shift in tempi were rather abrupt and lacked consistency. But the orchestra played well for him, though at times he was almost intolerably slow.

Exactly what version of Faust was played I am not sure, but it is one I have never heard before. Both Marguerite´s spinning wheel scene and the Walpurgis night was included, both abridged, however and by more than just the ballet. And several small spoken recitatives were included, as well as plainly spoken sentences within some of the arias, most notably Siebels.

I was surrounded by (as well as deafened by) very loud booers, and it is my clear impression that they won out, for what it is worth.

The bottom line (scale of 1-5, 3=average):

Marina Poplavskaya: 4-5
Charles Castronovo: 4-5
René Pape: na
Silvia de la Muela: 3
Roman Trekel: 3-4

Karsten Wiegand: 2-3

Alain Altinoglu: 3-4

Overall impression: 4

Photographs from the company website


Anonymous said...

mostly opera, I think maybe you are unfair to René Pape. I wasn´t there, but "circulatory" problems sounds like maybe he is serious ill?

Anonymous said...

i agree with kk. i also worry he is ill. i think you don´t give him fair review here.

mostly opera... said...

Unfair to René Pape? Is this a joke?
Seriously kk and anonymous, I don´t know what the term "circulatory problems" is meant to cover, but I expect he has a cold and got dizzy, that´s it. It didn´t look worse than that.

Anonymous said...

Tss, tss, Mostly, I think you are being teased ! I too did giggle (a bit) at your unexpected piece of Pape-slashing. Not like you, ms Mostly ! ;-)

Anonymous said...

I was actually not joking. If someone is ill, is it not wrong to criticize him?

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. I was at the performance and I agree with you on everything. I sort of wish you hadn´t written those lines about René Pape, but he was exactly as you say he was. Still the greatest Mephistopheles in the world, even on an off-night, though.

Anonymous said...

I was also at the performance and agree with many of your comments. For me things became infinitely more moving after the interval: staging was more subtle with beautiful use of light and reflection in the by now stark but striking set, as well as, I thought, an outstanding performance of Marguerite's torment by Popavsklaya. The second act, replete with neon lighting and inexplicable animal references (dolphin masks and rabbit dance moves)just left me confused. In those moments, however, I must say Pape saved it for me, despite perhaps not being on top form.

Anonymous said...

Seems like all the Berlin reviewers agree with you. Did you see what Tagesspiegel wrote about René Pape, using the words "singing pillar" in the headline, obviously referring to him and not even mentioning he was indisposed?

mostly opera... said...

Perhaps I did not make myself clear in the post: Even on an off-night like this, René Pape is still entirely unmatched by anyone else on stage, as Méphistophéles as well.

Regarding Tagesspiegel: They always treat him terribly, if it is not his voice tyoe, it is his age or whatever. I simply refuse to link to that review: To place a headline "singing pillar" referring to him and not even mentioning his indisposition is way way out of line and really not to be taken seriously.
In two weeks, where he will most probably sing the finest Gurnemanz heard in Berlin at least since the 1920´s, they will probably complain about his age...

Re the production: I still wonder about those dolphins. I noticed one of the Berlin papers commenting that the casino, which Méphistophéles controlled was a vision of hell. Perhaps that makes sense. Anyway I shall report back on this production, which I will visit at least one more time.

operfan said...

I thought production was confused and really terrible in first act. Most of booing was at the interval reflecting this. "Dinner party" at end was veritable "coup de theatre". Whole evening convinced me I never want to see "Faust" again. Last time was in Munich That was even worse.

Anonymous said...

I actually found mostlyopera's comments to be quite kind and generous towards pape considering how it actually sounded..

Anonymous said...

Why, yes, I was being ironic too: my point was to underline the fact that, although René Pape was, apparently, not very good (missing entries, singing flat, etc...) our dear hostess Mostly still found him "smashing". My comment was entirely tongue-in-cheek - sorry if that didn't come through...

As to René Pape's illness... maybe he had caught a flu in Japan (the same sort that has ministers resign) ?

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